The Wellbeing Series #2 The Benefits of Swimming Outdoors

Paul Bateson is a Drama teacher, writer and theatre producer: using arts and culture as a way to improve wellbeing and affect social change is at the heart of his work.

Paul also pays close attention his own mental health and the mental health of others.


For a while now in my own journey of living with depression, I have been quietly considering how all the activities of my life affect my mood with their relative healing powers. Exercise clears my head and gives me energy. Music and Reading help me get lost or find comfort; Food can do all three. Theatre excites me and winds me up in a good way, Sport gives me goals and great friends. Gardening helps you grow, Walking helps you move on, and helping others helps us to help ourselves.

Similarly; alcohol makes me anxious, too little sleep and I’m tiring to be with, watching too much TV tunes you out, and I find making decisions hard without planning. The more we know ourselves the more we can do for ourselves.


Wild Swimming

Swimming is often cited to be a good, easy and accessible exercise to include in a healthy and active lifestyle. Google ‘starting swimming’, ‘swimming for wellbeing’, or similar, and you can quickly find a nearby pool or a local lido, or join a swimmers club. They are cheap and it’s easy to make a swimming plan and set goals too. We are often urged to dive in and get fit.

And it is a very worthwhile and enjoyable pastime, but I think also especially in terms of our wellbeing. For anyone who also wants to take some time out with themselves, relax and reflect, swimming is great for the mind. Not least that is usually an individual activity; it gives us space to think. While the body goes through its muscle memory motions and moves you gently up and down the lanes; the brain can switch off abit, or switch on, or ponder, and many plans are formed, conversations practised, problems pored over and dreams dreamed in the echoey choppy lanes of the leisure centre pool.

But on a more fundamental level for me is the physical act of being in the water –  how relaxing the water feels. That sensation of suspension in the water, either floating on your back or gently breast-stroking along, is very therapeutic. Physically, swimming is a famously low impact exercise so is suitable and sensitive to creaky knees and older arms. But mentally it works the same, and the water seems to act like a life jacket to a tired mind, or safe watery cuddly or sympathetic support for a troubled soul.

Just as most connections with nature have a primitive earthy invigorating effect to them, what could be more visceral than dipping your bare skin in the water?

Personally, ever since I was a younger I have loved swimming and being in the water. Bath times were a pleasure not a chore, water world preferred to theme park, holidays were spent in the pool, or the sea, or the water park, or the riverbank.  And I still do love swimming, but never seem to go!

So why as an adult do I not swim? I know it makes me feel  good…

As an adult the desire to swim is still there but somehow seemed to slip down my list. Running gets the blood pumping more, football is fun and with friends. Squash has a competitive element, the climbing wall is cheaper and nearer than the local pool and there’s no time restrictions. In fact, either way, doing lengths in the local pool just does not cut it for me.

It can be quite intimidating and stressful. The changing rooms are sweaty and anxiously getting undressed on slippy-floor-veruca-tiles foot-puddles is tiring and tense. The lanes can be busy and finding the right session for you amongst the tots and toddlers and women only timetable is awkward. Not to mention once in the water, threading your way through the people needle of: head down speed splashers, steady mums and nattering nans, diving children, inattentive Dads, rubber rings, swimming lessons and after work trainers.

So when I came across a book called Wild Swimming, all about swimming outdoors, in pools and ponds, finding secret waterfalls, and picnics by rivers and I was hooked. So I could go somewhere where there was no one else around and slide and jump and splash and shout to my hearts content? Maybe this was my way to rediscover that friendly reviving feel of swimming whilst avoiding the hubbub of the local baths.

Why bother though? The council pool is down the road and the water’s warmer. Well, you’re alone for a start, as mentioned earlier, but it’s often quiet, which can help achieve mental clarity. And there’s so much to meditate on too, which helps make this a more mindful act. Rather than dutifully and robotically counting the lengths as the big clock ticks on the wall, there are: mossy rocks, trees, leaves and reeds. Birds, bugs and insects, the sun and the wind. And of course; the water.

Then there’s the sounds; whether it’s a weir rushing or a waterfall thumping the surface. A river bubbling along or the stillness of a lake or tarn. A quiet trickling provides a sense of relaxation but with enough movement to keep you alert and thinking.

Finally, the feel; the water is prickly cold and makes your skin buzz, it takes your breath away – but that’s the fun. Don’t we all want to feel like we’re switched on and truly alive? Above all Wild Swimming is an adventure and for anyone who feels stuck in their head sometimes then take this excuse to get out.

Swimming; a long considered healthy activity; can be enhanced so much by taking it outside. In the wild it becomes a truly sense awakening pastime, urging you to be mindful.

Nature, gifts the activity a lift, which in turn lifts me. If you sometimes need a lift, get down and get wet.

Since I pushed myself to get back to wild swimming I have kept it up semi-regularly, and it always puts a smile on my face, makes my body feel alive and skin tingle and the heart pump and sing. Over the past year or so we’ve swum at Gaddings Dam near Hebden Bridge, River Wharfe on Grassington Weir and River Lune at Kirkby Lonsdale amongst others – and more to come in the future.


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